Whose Story Will Sandi Tan Tell Next?

Photo: Christopher Bernabeo

Sandi Tan was having trouble sleeping, so she decided to fly to Australia. “I like to take extreme measures to achieve simple things,” she says, sitting across the table from me at a restaurant called Orsa & Winston in downtown L.A. Last year, the 46-year-old auteur was in the midst of a promotional frenzy for her acclaimed documentary memoir, Shirkers, and was averaging around two hours of shut-eye a night. So when the Australian International Documentary Conference asked her to come to Australia to teach a MasterClass in film, Tan accepted, seeing a trip to the other side of the world as the perfect opportunity to reset her body clock. “I’m glad I went, because after that I could sleep,” she explains, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Tan called her class “How to Build a Time Machine” because she does things in a different order — and at a different magnitude of intensity — than most people. She shot Shirkers, her first feature film, in 1992, when she was a precocious 18-year-old film buff living in Singapore, after having spent her teen years voraciously consuming the films of the French New Wave on smuggled VHS tapes. Her movie — a surrealist sci-fi adventure through the Singapore of her youth, made with her two best friends — seemed destined to become a cult sensation, but it was never released. Immediately after filming, the tapes were stolen by her director and mentor, a mysterious American man named George, and Tan spent the next two decades languishing in a state of creative torpor. She was a teen who had already made a feature film, so she worked backward from there by becoming a film critic, then going to film school and settling in L.A., as the creative flame ignited in her as a young girl dimmed to a flicker. Then, in 2008, George’s ex-wife found the reels of film (he had since passed away) and sent them back to Tan, who was confronted with her own youthful passion. Last year, Tan released the “new” Shirkers, combining the rediscovered footage with interviews and narration that tell the whole story as a cinematic memoir about her upbringing, the making and theft of the original film, and her hunt for the man who took it.

“Releasing the film completely changed me on a molecular level,” Tan tells me, gesticulating excitedly. “It’s like a self-created rebirth. You’re learning to sing a strange duet with your younger self. You’re reinvigorated by your younger self that’s there still, and you’re kind of realizing it’s always been there. And then afterward you’re younger; you’re aging backward.”

Shirkers won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at Sundance, and found a huge audience when it aired on Netflix. Now Tan regularly receives fan mail from teenagers across the world who feel like her story is their story and are newly invigorated to go out and make art of their own. “The most thrilling thing for me has been these kids from the middle of nowhere writing to me in broken English and Spanish with crying-face emojis on Instagram,” she reflects. And though she acknowledges that it might sound cliché, she says she’s living through something of a second adolescence — a creative one filled with major professional and personal life changes. “Now, the more horrible things are, the lizard-brain part of me will think, If I don’t die, this is great material,” she says, laughing.

At times, Tan comes across like a precocious teenage girl trapped in an adult body. She is enthusiastic, intense, scattered, loquacious, and totally unfiltered in her likes and dislikes. Even her outfit has schoolgirlish overtones: She’s wearing a knee-length polka-dot skirt with a red sweater and gold rabbit necklace, and she sports an expression of amused curiosity on her round, poreless face. When our waiter explains that the sake Tan has ordered is from Fukushima, Japan — the site of the 2011 nuclear meltdown — she freaks out. “Is it radioactive? I was hoping it would be radioactive!” she exclaims. “Is this after [the meltdown]? After? Wow! Radioactive sake! It’s so good! Oh my God!” From the moment she arrived at the restaurant, slinging her backpack — which has little cat ears and whiskers — onto the back of her chair, she starts saying stuff she shouldn’t say about her personal life, her future projects, and Hollywood and awards-season politics. “Oops, that’s off the record!” she says, after telling me a million personal things that were technically on the record. She confides she’s gotten in trouble before for her loose lips and is trying to rein it in. “‘Be yourself, but be the grown-up version of yourself.’ That’s what they always say,” she explains, referring to her industry handlers. “I’m just an impossible person, and I know I am.”

Tan may be a loose cannon, but she’s also a hot commodity in Hollywood right now. After the success of Shirkers, everyone wanted a piece of her. Next up — or maybe not next, maybe after some other stuff, or at least at some point soon — Tan is teaming with Animal Kingdom and Cinereach to write and direct an adaptation of The Idiot, the beloved 2017 autobiographical novel by Elif Batuman, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and whose millennial-pink cover became a permanent fixture on the shelves of cool literary girls. A highly interior work of autofiction about a cerebral Harvard student falling in love for the first time, The Idiot is a book that seems as if it would be impossible to adapt, until you consider that it’s going to be adapted by Sandi Tan. “I read it and I was like, I love it so much, but I don’t know how to do it,” she says. Then she read it again and something clicked. “I was like, Oh my God, I have to do it. I know how to do it. I know how to do it!” she exclaims.

In many ways, adapting The Idiot makes total sense as a follow-up to Shirkers. Both are time capsules — stories originating from the author’s younger selves, that were rewritten and recontextualized later. Batuman wrote the first draft of The Idiot when she was 23; she didn’t rewrite and publish it until two decades later. Both are also about intelligent, creative young women who are preoccupied with the written word. In Shirkers, young Sandi pours out reams of text to her friends abroad, treating her correspondence like a personal diary. In The Idiot, Batuman’s fictional counterpart, Selin, forms an epistolary romance with her classmate Ivan through the elaborate emails they send back and forth. So it’s fitting that Tan came onto the project by writing a three-page email to Batuman, who sent an even longer one back. The rest is history.

“It blew me away,” said Batuman over email, describing the first time she saw Shirkers. “I didn’t just love but also deeply recognized the sensibility of the recovered ’90s footage. Those saturated colors, the toothbrush salesman, the leg store — I felt such a kinship to 18-year-old Sandi and also to present-day Sandi who is sort of curating her 18-year-old self.”

Shirkers seemed like a literalization of something that I had experienced metaphorically,” Batuman continues, describing how in both works, a man absconds with part of a young woman’s creative identity. “Selin follows Ivan to Hungary, and then he sort of disappears and takes the story with him. I wanted to convey what a horrible feeling that is to feel that someone else has gone off and taken [the story] with them — and how long it takes to recover from it.

Ideas for how she is going to convey a narrative that takes place mostly in a young woman’s head (and in some Hungarian villages) pour out of Tan at our dinner table: “So the book’s basically the intelligent, creative young woman’s Twilight, right?” I admit I’d never thought of it like that. “It’s about this woman who is head smart and heart stupid — that’s why she’s the idiot,” she explains. “And she’s being sucked into this vortex of obsession by this guy, and by the end of it she gets destroyed. But instead of turning into a vampire, she turns into an artist. And to watch that transformation is a wonderful thing.”

Tan envisions The Idiot as being like Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo told from a female point of view. She also sees it as “the teenage version” of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. She thinks the beginning of the tale, set in college dorms, should feel narrow and dark, “then the outside world starts seeping in, and light and culture and sound and sensuality start to fill her world without her really knowing it. And then by the end it’s like Call Me By Your Name. It’s bucolic; it’s a different world.” Tan tells me whoever plays Selin “must be special,” probably someone not yet famous. “It will be a new thing, and it will be her thing — kind of like Lady Bird goes to college.”

So if you’re keeping track, that’s Twilight meets Vertigo meets Phantom Thread meets Call Me By Your Name meets Lady Bird. Excited yet?

Given her current slate of projects, it’s easy to imagine Tan cornering the market on a certain brand of interiority-driven, formally inventive female storytelling, like a Singaporean Sarah Polley. It would give her career a logical thematic through line, something that Hollywood loves and that Tan’s topsy-turvy career has been totally missing. But based on all the other ideas she fires at me over the course of our meal, for shows and movies in all sorts of genres, what comes next might also make no sense. After all, Tan is a woman with deeply eclectic tastes, whose inspirations include David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog and David Lynch and Bertolt Brecht … and that’s when she was 18 years old. (Meanwhile, her favorite movie in recent years, strangely, was Damien Chazelle’s First Man because she “relates” to Neil Armstrong. “It’s like he doesn’t want to come back to Earth. He just wants to work and keep doing his stuff in space like it’s real life,” she muses).

After 20 years of creative stagnation, Tan is ready to work, which means putting a whole lot of eggs in a whole lot of baskets. “I’ve been wasting so many years not doing anything, and I feel like I just have to make up for lost time,” she says, as she polishes off her radioactive sake. “I want to do everything,” she adds, her eyes widening with possibilities. “I really lived my life backward, but now I’ve realized that’s actually okay to do things in the wrong order, as long as you do everything.”

Listening to the accompanying podcast below:

Whose Story Will Sandi Tan Tell Next?